I am someone who laughs at President Trump a lot. For several years, I basically laughed at Trump professionally. I laughed when he wondered aloud if a survivor of Hurricane Florence might get to keep the "nice boat" that had landed in his yard. I laughed when he quipped you always have to say "Nevada" right or people will get mad at you. And sometimes, such as last Thursday at The 1st Annual Trump Family Special in New York City, I laugh because comedians make him out to be a clown.
The 1st Annual Trump Family Special, a cabaret that opened this month at the Triad Theater in New York City, expertly nails the way many people see the Trump clan: as bumbling, oafish, closeted, politically incorrect cartoon characters, stumbling their way into the next punchline. At a certain point, though, a perpetuation of that farcical image begins to iron out the horrors of the administration. After all, it's far easier to laugh at harmless jokes about a former reality TV show star's small hands, "corruption," and bad spray tan than it is to actually grapple with the fact that he is the most powerful person on Earth.
Starring actress Gina Gershon as a dead-ringer for Melania Trump, The 1st Annual Trump Family Special jokingly anticipates what a Trump TV variety program might look like, often with great hilarity, cleverness, and word-play. With the president running late for the program, a soulless Ivanka (Lisa St. Lou) wrangles her brothers, the first lady, and her father's ex-wives for interviews and songs, including a choral number in which the cast promises "you're in our prayers" if your water is poisoned, you're on opioids, or you're shot. Perhaps most impressively, the show had clearly been tweaked up to the last minute, containing hyper-timely jokes: "Well-endowed lover?" Melania's character scoffs at one point. "My little mushroom?"
Yet despite the show apparently having all the trappings of a vicious depiction of the Trump family, it's practically White House-approved. The performance is endorsed by former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, a.k.a. "the Mooch," who has led the Family Special's early promotions. "I think [the Trump family would] find this very funny," Scaramucci said of the show at a press conferece. "They know how to take a joke."
From the White House to Broadway: Anthony Scaramucci brings a musical about the Trump family to the stage pic.twitter.com/2lIirKQY2q
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) August 27, 2018
Scaramucci isn't wrong, which is perhaps why laughing at the Trump Family Special, while easy, also feels empty. Most of the skits in The 1st Annual Trump Family Special would have passed Trump's own checklist for acceptable roasting, which reportedly includes "jokes about Trump's wife Melania (and his two previous marriages)," "jokes about Trump having sex with models," and "jokes about Trump being attracted to his daughter Ivanka." The only jokes Trump reportedly refused to allow at his 2011 Comedy Central roast were any that suggested "Trump is not actually as wealthy as he claims to be." So it feels almost submissive that the Trump Family Special teases the Trumps for flaunting their wealth — in "If I Had It As Bad As You," the company imagines being as "poor" as the New Yorkers in the audience — rather than observing in any meaningful way that the family is full of scammers and frauds. This kind of comedy is basically lifted right out of Trump's own script.
Despite his thin skin, the president's embrace of humor is one of his most disarming tools. He presents himself as a joker, frequently making quips at his rallies, to the delight of his supporters — but also making it harder to pin him down as some evil fascist mastermind, because he is able to prove he can laugh at himself. More disturbingly, the president commonly uses "jokes" as a pretense for making his most controversial proclamations. After asking Russia to find Hillary Clinton's emails, for example, he dismissed outcry by saying it was all just a joke. He thrills at calling the media pearl-clutchers without a sense of humor.
Jokes should be one of the most effective forms of resistance, one of the sharpest tools for poking authority in the eye. But what we're seeing now is something different: The fact that we can laugh at mild jokes about the administration's coziness with the alt-right, about children in cages, or about environmental disasters just shows that the White House is winning — how naturally these nightmares have become a part of a reality we can accept and even enjoy. That we can go to a cabaret on a Thursday night, throw back a few drinks, and laugh at the same old jokes about the orange man in the White House proves that the administration long ago calcified into entertainment and that it will take a much darker and sharper humor than sex jokes to reach a comedic catharsis. Perhaps we are simply past the point of a Trump cabaret being effective.
The most chilling moment in The 1st Annual Trump Family Special is during a reprise of the opening number, "Win, Win, Win," at the end of the show. In it, the company taunts, "We're here for six more years!" This is a joke, maybe — one where the punchline is in the possibilities of that statement, in what could happen in those intervening years. What other horrors, I left the theater wondering, can be boiled down into catchy lyrics to be laughed at over a dirty martini?